FAVA: the Ancient Mediterranean Bean

The only crop we can always depend on, is fava. Fava has never failed us, even when we first planted a few beans in Kea, in our rocky, poor soil, before adding compost and lots of manure. Everything else failed those first years, but favas thrived! No wonder that since antiquity the prolific fava has been such an important staple for the people around the Mediterranean.


Part of the Old World legumes–together with chickpeas and lentils—fava was a most nutritious bean that fed ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans. Called ‘broad bean’ by the British, it has been found in Neolithic sites in Israel dated back to 6800-6500 BC. Ancients believed that the plant’s roots lead straight to Hades, to theunderworld, reaching and communicating with the souls of the dead. Pythagoras and his followers, who abstained from eating meat and fish, included fava beans in their forbidden foods because they believed that the souls of men are transformed into beans after death.


Up until the introduction of the New World phaseolus bean, fava remained a valuable source of protein throughout the Old World. But the new American beans gradually made it–especially dried–almost obsolete. For Greeks, though, like for most people in southern Europe and northern Africa, fava–both the fresh pods and the dried beans– remain an important legume and are cooked in a variety of ways.


For Catholics fava beans are part of the feast of St. Joseph “and the tradition of the Altar or Table, for March 19. “The blessed dried beans are distributed on the altars along with a piece of blessed bread. “When dried, roasted and blessed, it becomes the very popular ‘lucky bean.’ Legend has it that you will never be broke as long as you carry one. Some people believe that if you keep one in the pantry, there will always be food in the kitchen.”


The Sicilian tradition has its roots in a famine, during a time when some kind of fava was used as fodder for cattle. The farmers cooked these overlooked beans, and survived. I read that Italians would carry a bean from a good crop to ensure a good crop the following year. Sicilians who follow St. Joseph’s early spring tradition serve fava beans in frittatas, or cook them with garlic.


Greeks don’t peel the shelled fava, an easy but tedious kitchen chore. Italians, who inspired modern chefs to make fresh favas a much sought-after ingredient, insist that they have to be peeled. “The skin should be removed because it is very bitter,” Julia Child declared in a conversation we had, in the late ’90ies. It was during a food conference in the Bay Area, and I happen sit across from her at Chez Panisse. It was spring and shelled fava was omnipresent, peeled, of course. I told her that Greeks never peel it; “the skin is bitter and inedible,” Julia Child said in a didactic tone. But I insisted that maybe larger beans were better peeled, but the small ones, although not so attractively green, were perfectly delicious unpeeled. She looked at me annoyed, in total disbelief–probably because I dared to contradict her, not because she had tasted unpeeled tender fava and hated it; ‘can’t be done,” she said angrily.


We don’t just eat the shelled fava beans unpeeled, but we also braise the velvety pods with scallions, wild fennel and lemon. In Kea the dish’s flavor is enhanced with tiny pieces of paspala (salted pork). In Crete you get a handful of freshly harvested fava pods with tsikoudia—the local moonshine. People shell and munch the fava as we do peanuts. I often cook orzo risotto-like, with chopped fava pods and fennel, stirring in crumbled feta at the end. But frying the tender pods is by far the best way to serve them. I dip them in the ouzo batter my mother used for salted cod–similar to Heston Blumenthal’s vodka and beer batter. I heard it called ‘poor man’s fish,’ but to me these deliciously crunchy fried pods are better than fish, an irresistible spring delicacy!


Fried Fava Pods in Ouzo Batter

In the same batter you can dip and fry slices of zucchini, peppers, sliced carrots, fish fillets, or mussels.


Makes 4-6 appetizer servings

2 pounds tender fava pods, washed and dried, ends trimmed

1 cup cornstarch, plus 2 tablespoons or more, for sprinkling
1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
1 ½ teaspoon baking powder
1 cups ouzo (or vodka)
2/3 cup club soda or more, as needed
Olive oil and sunflower oil for frying

Make the batter: In a bowl mix together 1 cup cornstarch, the flour, and baking powder. Add ouzo and enough club soda to make a runny batter, whisking vigorously. If too thick, add a more club soda or water.

Heat a combination of olive oil and sunflower oil.

Drop a few fava pods in the batter, remove with tongs and fry in batches, turning them as they become deep golden, about 2 minutes or less.

Transfer to a plate lined with double kitchen paper, sprinkle with salt and serve at once.

See also Orzo with Fresh Fava, Feta and Lemon


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